Attack outside of Parliament amidst Brexit debate

By Rachel Parkey & Emily Gams

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The United Kingdom endured a terror attack last week outside Parliament as Brexit negotiations continue. Photo by Paulina Martin.

Last week, Great Britain was in the news again in the wake of violent attacks outside of Parliament at Westminster. The attacker killed three people when he drove his car into a crowd and, after exiting the vehicle, stabbed a responding police officer.

The attack took place on the same day that members of Parliament were to vote on whether to hold another Scottish independence referendum, and just a week before Parliament was due to activate Article 50, which would allow the government to begin official “divorce” talks with the European Union — aka, actual discussions on the reality of Brexit.

Because of the timing, some immediate reactions to the shooting included speculations that it could be related to Brexit. At this point, however, no one seems to think Brexit is linked to the attack at Parliament last week. Rather, it appears to be a case of terrorist radicalization.

The role of technology and the internet in terrorist attacks has become a topic of contention in the days following the attack at Westminster. The attacker apparently made use of the popular encrypted messaging service WhatsApp just minutes before the attack, and authorities are currently investigating whether he had been inspired by online terrorist propaganda.

Advocates of greater surveillance in platforms such as WhatsApp — including the current British Home Secretary Amber Rudd — cite examples such as last Wednesday’s attack as reasons for increased surveillance or responsibility on the part of messaging services. She has asserted that messaging companies should allow intelligence services involved in fighting terrorism access even to encrypted systems, but there are many who see such a move toward greater surveillance as a violation of the right to privacy.

For Americans, this should spark memories from last year after the San Bernardino shooting, during which Apple and the government had a hard time coming to an agreement about who should be allowed access to individuals’ private messages and call logs. This isn’t the only point of commonality between the U.S. and U.K. experiences when it comes to terrorism.

Both have taken leading roles in counterterrorism efforts and collaborate closely. And while the motivations behind the attack were not in protest of Brexit, the attack has brought questions about the U.K.’s changing relationship with the rest of the world to the forefront.

As the U.K. proceeds to exit the EU, it has to consider how 40-plus years of EU membership will influence their history. Some question whether Britain was trying to be more European than it really is, and debate whether the attempt was noble or an aberration. These are questions which have surfaced as the activation of Article 50 draws closer. Generally, the U.S. and the U.K. have been more closely aligned than the U.S. and the rest of Europe, and as the U.K. distances itself from the EU its relationship with the U.S. will have to adjust as well.

When Prime Minister Theresa May visited Washington, D.C. in January, it seemed that ties between the U.S. and U.K. were close and getting closer. President Donald Trump reassured May that he was dedicated to NATO, and the two expressed their desire to establish a trade agreement once the U.K. had officially exited the EU. May even invited Trump to a state visit with the queen later this year, something which rarely happens during a president’s first year. Their cooperation was further established in the recent decisions by both the U.S. and the U.K. to ban laptops from carry-on bags when flying to and from specific countries.  Clearly, both countries are partnering closely when it comes to counterterrorism.

However, May took a political risk in allying herself closely with Trump. If he chooses to thaw relations with Russia further than the U.K. is comfortable, Trump may find himself coming into conflict with the U.K., and May could find herself in a tricky political situation since she praised Trump during her visit in January. At that time May reaffirmed her commitment to the sanctions currently in place against Russia.

Additionally, not all Britons are ready to support Trump. At the vigil for those killed in the attack last Wednesday, many of those gathered to remember the victims carried signs conveying a commitment to unity and refusing to fall into islamophobia. A popular slogan among the signs was “Stand up to Trump.” May will likely face some pushback if she stays closely aligned with Trump as he pushes forward his immigration policy.

As President Trump continues to develop his foreign policy and the U.K. activates Article 50 to officially begin Brexit, the U.S. and the U.K. will find their familiar relationship shifting.  Both countries are facing divisive issues and need their allies to stand by them. Whether Trump and May can maintain a good relationship will significantly shape the future of both country’s foreign policies, both with the EU and further afield.

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